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Were People Really So Much Smaller in the Victorian Era?

Wow. Once again, I must apologize for not posting. I have a good excuse this time. I spent some time in the hospital, lost a bit of weight, and now I have to rebuild my energy. To tie this into vintage clothing – I can wear my vintage dresses again! But I don’t recommend disease for weight loss. Although health, nutrition, and lifestyles are among the many reasons antique and vintage clothing is considered so tiny today.

“People were so much smaller back then!” One thing about working in a retail setting, I heard that statement AT LEAST once a day.

I used to display antique dresses for sale in my antiques shop. Waaay back when I first opened my shop, I thought that people really wanted to learn about these beauties so whenever someone would utter those words I tried to use the opportunity to talk about their history. Who can resist talking about them?

From the Way Back Machine:  Antique Dresses displayed in my shop back in 2004

From the Way Back Machine: Antique Dresses displayed in my shop back in 2004

Nine times out of ten the exchange would go like this:

Visitor: Oh my! Have you seen the size of that waist?
Me: Um … (thinking to myself – yes, I dressed the dress form … how do I answer this one?) Yes. It’s a lovely dress isn’t it?

Visitor: People were so much smaller back then. How horrible it would be to wear a corset!
Me: Actually, a properly fit corset is not uncomfortable at all and females wore corsets from such a young age that their bodies and minds were used to them.

Visitor: They were shorter back then, too.
Me: Not necessarily. I’m 5’ 1” and all these dresses are too long for me. The shoulders on the dress forms are all set higher than my shoulders are – in heels!

Visitor: (blank stare) (silence) Well, ALL these dresses are so tiny!
Me: There can be many reasons for that. Think of your own closet. Have you saved a dress or two from the past? What dresses were they?

Visitor: Only my wedding dress.
Me: That’s pretty typical. We tend to save a dress worn at a special occasion or time of our life. USUALLY that’s when we’re young and … well, at our smallest adult size.

In the 19th century it wasn’t uncommon for a young lady to be married in a new “best dress” instead of a special, white wedding dress. The newly married lady would then probably continue to wear this “best dress” for special occasions and to church on Sunday. It probably wasn’t long before the bride became pregnant with her first child and .. before long she couldn’t wear it and put it away to wear after the baby came. For many reasons, that dress might not come out of storage and these are the wonderful, near perfect dresses we love so much today.

As time passed, new dresses that were at least somewhat larger (you know, the “huge” ones with the 28” waist LOL) were made and remade into more current styles. Lots of bodices still exist without matching skirts because the skirts had larger spans of fabric that could be used to make other clothing – probably for children – when they became worn or stained. And sadly, a greater number of women died at a younger age then and it’s likely that their clothing was put away and left for sentimental reasons.

There are many other factors that contribute to our larger sizes such as better nutrition, portion sizes, and our sedentary lifestyles. Plus, the shape of a corseted body is much different than the natural shape our bodies take today.

Visitor: ZZZzzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZzzz……

After having this exchange with few variations over a period of years, the exchange has become much more concise.

Visitor: Oh my! Have you seen the size of that waist? People were so much smaller back then.
Me: (Smile) Well, they never met a Big Mac.
Visitor: (Smile) That’s true!

Visitor: I wouldn’t wear a corset. That would be so painful!
Me: (Smile)

I’ll share the death by corset article next time ….

Tales of a Tattered Victorian Skirt

Antique Black Silk Skirt C0018

Antique Black Silk Skirt C0018

You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I love this skirt. You know why? Because it’s a survivor.

It’s just another boring black silk Victorian skirt. It might even be Edwardian or even into the early 1920s. It’s been around.

We all love the pristine, near mint antique dresses – beauty is easy to love. But this one .. THIS skirt has a story. I only wish I knew what it was.

It seems this dear skirt was re-made from another garment or that the style was updated. So that I don’t repeat myself and be boring – you can read details of some of the changes in its description: Black Silk Skirt Antique Victorian Edwardian

There are multiple period mends. I love period mends. It reminds me of the skills our grandmothers had, and how frugal they were. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this woman was poor, but this obviously wasn’t her Sunday best ! What’s wrong with a neatly mended skirt for wearing around the house, doing “light” chores? Don’t you have a faded or holey old t-shirt that you just happen to love to wear around the house?

Another period patch

Another period patch

I suppose this skirt could have been worn for mourning. It is black, after all, and not a particularly shiny black silk. It might make sense to have a black skirt tucked away for mourning purposes. It would make sense to update the style if needed and to mend it – hopefully she wouldn’t be needing it often!

It’s a huge mistake to think that an antique dress was a “mourning dress” just because it is black. Silk wasn’t washable and fabric choices were limited: silk, cotton, wool, linen. Black hides a lot of dirt and stains. It was (and is!) a popular color for non-mourning purposes.

With a 31″ waist and it could have belonged to a middle aged or older woman. I’m sure you’ve noticed the 22″ – 26″ waists most antique dresses have. That’s not to say it didn’t belong to a younger woman who didn’t subscribe to current fashion or “wasp waists”, though. Some of us just have “big bones”, too! 🙂

The length seems short, just 33″, and there is no train or extra fabric for a bustle. Did she remake this skirt to wear for the days she spent sitting in her rocking chair, doing beautiful needlework or knitting? Or just sitting on the front porch, waving to the neighbors on a hot summer evening when sitting indoors was much too stifling.

The hand of the fabric is lovely, too. I wish had more expert knowledge of the type of fabrics and weaves. This isn’t at all crisp. It’s soft and must have been comfortable – her favorite skirt, so she kept repairing and remaking it. It could have started as a skirt with a small bustle and remade in the 1910s with more of a straight line and then worn into the 20s or even 30s as women at that time were prone to do. How often have you seen pictures of old ladies with their hair in a bun and a long skirt and shirtwaist .. standing next to automobile? Ok, maybe not that exact scenario but I do happen to have a couple of those in our family photos so they can’t be totally scarce! (Do you think I could put my hands on that picture right now??)

How I wish this skirt could talk … or maybe not. It would probably laugh at all the stories I’ve just made up about it!

Victorian Software aka Underpinnings

Have you ever thought about Victorian underpinnings?  I mean, really considered all that a real Victorian woman would have worn on a daily basis?  The things that your very own great or great-great grandmother would have worn.

I’ve mentioned before that corsets, bustles, cages, etc. shaped a woman’s body to fit the fashion of the day — let’s think of it as “hardware” (technically, I guess it really was!)  Then there is the “software” such as the chemise, drawers, and petticoats – add collars, cuffs, undersleeves, and corset covers depending on the fashion at the time.

Today, I want to talk about drawers.  Bloomers.  Pantaloons.  There are other terms, but most people know what you’re talking about when you use these words.

I’m not sure exactly when (or if) the term “drawers” fell out of favor.  “Drawers” was the word most often used for this most personal item in the early Victorian years through at least the Civil War era.  In fact, “The Workwoman’s Guide”, originally published in 1838, refers to them as “trowsers” and “drawers”.  By at least 1859, Godey’s Ladies’ Book occasionally used “pantalettes” but Peterson’s speaks of “drawers” in 1858.  One thing is certain – the word “bloomers” referring to women’s underpants wasn’t used prior to the 1850s.  Amelia Bloomer (Ah ha!  See the connection?) advocated wearing long, baggy pants as OUTERWEAR.  At first, “bloomers”  referred to the women who subscribed to fashion reform rather than the actual garment.  Bloomers, as outerwear, didn’t catch on but it seems that, by the late 1800s up to nearly 1930, a lady’s poufy, knee-length under-pants were commonly called “bloomers”.

But I digress.   Today, I’m fascinated by this pair of late Victorian drawers because they’re patched.  There is a portion of the back interior lower leg that is a period repair.  Interesting, because in today’s “throw away” society, we would simply discard it.  In the mid-19th century, fabric was expensive but labor (yourself) was cheap.  While drawers could be purchased ready-to-wear, it’s likely that most women simply made their own – it’s pretty basic:  2 tubes of fabric slightly gathered onto a waistband.

Victorian Drawers (Back View) - Note Pieced Area on Leg C0050

Victorian Drawers (Back View) – Note Pieced Area on Leg C0050

Whether this is a period repair or a simple lack of fabric when they were being made, is hard to say.  In my opinion, the maker of the drawers didn’t have enough fabric for the entire leg and patched together enough fabric to complete it.

My opinion is based on two things:

    The drawers are perfectly clean and white with no evidence of wear.  If it was a repair, surely the drawers wouldn’t be quite as pristine.  If a hole was worn in the area, there would definitely be other areas of wear.  If this is a replacement piece, say caused by The Curse, I believe there would also be some other visible wear.
    In my personal collection is a pair of drawers that date to the Civil War era that have a patched in area.  I wanted to duplicate the drawers, including the patch.  As I was cutting my fabric, I found that I was short in the exact same place as the originals.  I had to make a nearly identical patch in order to make my new drawers!  (This is one of the reasons I love to reproduce antique clothing for my personal use/education – now I have first-hand knowledge of exactly WHY something was done 150 years ago.)

There are 2 photos.  The first is unedited. In the second, I tried to enhance it to show the stitching lines better. The antique drawers are, obviously, the yellowed ones.  They have much fainter seams/sewing lines than my reproduction.  They sewed theirs by hand in kind of a satin stitch.  I confess to much laziness and I did it with my sewing machine.  The antique drawers also have the patched in pieces on both sides of each leg piece, whereas I only had to do it on one side of each leg piece.

Antique & Repro Drawers with Patched Pieces (ENHANCED)

Antique & Repro Drawers with Patched Pieces (ENHANCED)

Antique & Repro Drawers with Patched Pieces

Antique & Repro Drawers with Patched Pieces


This is actually physical documentation of the age of the antique drawers.  Early – mid 19th century fabric was only 26″ – 28″ wide.  Today’s fabric is 36″ or 45″ wide.  Measuring the larger piece of fabric on the old drawers shows about 26″ – slightly less because of seam allowances.  Mine measure about 36″ – I am, of course, quite a bit bigger around than a 19th century woman!  My patched in pieces would have been much larger if I were using 26″ wide fabric.

Why not piece together underclothes?  They won’t be seen!

I have a patched together Edwardian guimpe and I’m going to keep my eyes open for a pieced/patched together chemise and petticoat.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find a patched chemise because the chemise and drawers are the very first layer of clothing a female would put on and therefore, highly unlikely to be seen.  A petticoat, on the other hand, may have been meant to be seen peeking out from beneath the skirt, at least down near the hem.

What do you think?  Have you ever had a neatly pieced together Victorian article of clothing?  I’d like to hear about it.

How To Buy Vintage Clothing That FITS – Part 2

As promised … Part 2 of How To Buy Vintage Clothing That Fits: The Details

Our bodies are proportioned entirely differently than they were, even 20 years ago. There are endless reasons for this but consider this – until the 1960s, foundation garments were almost always worn. When you get up every morning and pull on a long line or a fitted, circle stitched bra and a girdle your body will naturally accept and retain the shape the foundation garments give. Clothing manufacturers made clothes knowing that these foundation garments would be worn with them – that is, the dresses were cut and shaped to fit a body shaped by wearing these items.

Wearing a corset like this daily, actually molds the body into a particular shape.

Wearing a corset like this daily, actually molds the body into a particular shape.

You can see this in photographs since cameras were invented. 1840s dresses have an elongated “ironing board” bust and waist shape, 1850-1895 were wide bust, small waist, 1900’s had the s-curve corset that forced the bust forward and the butt back. 1920s – flattened bust, no waist, no butt. 1930s – more naturally curved body and general use of a separate bra. 1940s/50s – uplifted bust and small waist. Late 60s – natural body shape/gradual disuse of girdles and naturally shaped bras – fairly shapeless dresses. We won’t discuss the 70s – the 2000s because by that time, anything goes.

Today, our bodies define the shape of the clothing we wear. It’s all about finding the clothing you CAN wear – some styles, I CAN’T wear. I have to find clothing with certain shapes/fit in order to give me the illusion of the shape I desire and that hide the wrong shape.

Do you remember in my last post when I said that I will refer to the back shoulder measurement when helping me decide which general size to call a dress? That’s because most of us have broader shoulders and we are not used to “fitted” clothing, meaning that today’s garments are made with extra “ease” for movement. Garment makers know that we are used to being free to move, where our foremothers were used to wearing, what we consider restrictive, garments. Smaller armholes did not feel small or tight to them. It felt fitted properly. (Remember, women didn’t regularly wear pants/sportswear until the late 50s to early 60s!) So if you feel just a little pinched in the armholes, don’t slouch! Do as your mama said! Stand up straight and pull your shoulders back. It just might surprise you! 

I say this because, if your dress fits, but still doesn’t look “right” – it may be because you lack the foundation garments that would have been worn when the dress was made. Make the effort to find either vintage foundation garments or modern garments that mimic that shape and you will probably be thrilled with the difference!

Next time … Part 3: The Nitty Gritty

All Dolled Up – A Victorian Barrow Coat

NOT an antique petticoat with a wide waistband for an extremely thin girl!

NOT an antique petticoat with a wide waistband for an extremely thin girl!

Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new.  Most of the time it’s something like learning that burnt coffee stinks even after leaving the heating element on under the coffee pot for the 9,000th time.  Slow learner, I know. But occasionally, I learn something really great. Not necessary useful, but great.

Last week, for instance, I learned that an Edwardian petticoat with a 3 ½” wide waistband and a 20” waist ISN’T exactly a petticoat.  Not for an adult, anyway.  It IS a petticoat for a baby called a “Pinning Blanket” or a “Barrow Coat”.

A barrow coat is defined in the 1892 book “A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods“, by George S. Cole as:   Barrow-coat. A square or oblong piece of flannel, wrapped around an infant’s body below the arms, the part extending beyond the feet being turned up and pinned.

I found this item pictured in a couple of old store catalogs dating from 1904 and 1917.  Both catalogs are from the winter months and indicate that the ones offered are made of “flannelette” which is a softer, heavier cotton than the one I have which is made of cambric – probably to be worn in warmer weather.  More directions for making a Pinning Blanket were given in a 1926 reference – I wish I could give you the link, but the site has come down now.

Pinning Band

Catalog Page with Pinning Blankets

Barrow Coat aka Pinning Blanket

Barrow Coat aka Pinning Blanket

I’ve been told that in some old photographs of babies, one can see the pinning blanket through the outer dress.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find any in a search of family photos, but thought you might enjoy seeing my mother’s 1930s baby doll wearing this one.  It’s a perfect fit, too!

Antique Baby Dress Petticoat Barrow Coat Pinning Blanket

Antique Baby Dress Petticoat Barrow Coat Pinning Blanket

The antique barrow coat/pinning blanket (not the doll!) is available in our shop.

God Save the Queen(‘s Bloomers)!

A friend passed along a link to this exhibit of a recently acquired set of Queen Victoria’s underpinnings and it got me to thinking ….  (look out, she’s gonna rant!  LOL)

Queen Victoria's Jubilee

Queen Victoria’s Jubilee

Everyone is familiar with photos and portraits of Queen Victoria which are mostly from her more mature years.  She ain’t no skinny mini!  As the article above points out, even beginning with a 20-inch waist in her youth, the birth of 9 kids will take its toll on a body.  I’d venture to guess that a royal lifestyle that includes an abundance of food probably would tend to put a few extra pounds on a girl.  All she’d be required to do is ring a bell and a servant could be sent with any sort of treat a queen could desire!  If I had that luxury, I’m certain I would be MUCH larger than Victoria’s 56-inch waist indicates!

Which brings me to The Rant.

The first 4 years after opening my brick and mortar shop, I delighted in displaying beautiful Victorian gowns on dress forms.  Almost everyone looked at the dresses without making the comment, “Look how tiny the waist is!”  Or my favorite- spoken directly to me, “Have you seen the size of the waist on that dress?”  (Umm… think about that.)

Repeated attempts to discuss the differences of lifestyle, availability, quantity, and diversity of food as well as overall better nutrition, etc., PLUS corseting have repeatedly been met with scorn and disbelief – really!  Eventually, I gave up attempts to be helpful and informative resorted to simply smiling and nodding.  When prodded for a comment, I found it sufficient to say, “They never met a Quarter Pounder with Cheese”.

All the while, these dresses were set up a about 5 ft. from a vintage mannequin displaying a seasonal vintage dress with all the accessories.  This particular mannequin has a 22 ½” waistline and most things fit well or will with minor pinning.  Foolishly pointing out that the mannequin’s dress is smaller than many of my Victorian gowns and that it wasn’t very long ago that women, in general, weren’t all that much larger only 50 years ago … let’s just say the response wasn’t been stellar.  The mannequin now lives to serve as a photo model only.

There’s a lot to be said for portion control.  My own mother, back in the ’60s would eat a single White Castle burger with a small Coke for dinner and be satisfied.  I’d kill to be able to wear her clothes today.

The question is:  am I willing to eat like that?  OBVIOUSLY not.  T.C., my vintage mannequin, HAS made her choice.  She maintains her 22 ½” waist by fastidiously refusing to eat.

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